The bright orange fence along the front of the Lohstroh family’s farm is hard to miss, and it serves as a landmark to draw customers to their fall farm market, corn maze and pick-your-own pumpkins. But a closer look shows their care for the farm goes beyond bright paint, and includes a thoughtful approach to management of their farm’s resources. The Lohstrohs, who farm about 1,000 acres in Madison and Pickaway counties, are being recognized for their efforts with a 2018 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award.
George and Michelle Lohstroh started out farming in Hamilton County in the early 1980s with a few acres of wheat and pumpkins. George had grown up helping with production of vegetables in his family’s greenhouses near Cincinnati, but Michelle didn’t have a connection to farming growing up. Her interest in natural resources led her to a career in agriculture. "I decided agriculture was always going to have a need," she recalls.
In 1989, the couple relocated to Madison County so Michelle could take a new job with the USDA in Columbus. They settled on a 142-acre farm near Mt. Sterling with their young family and began building their farming operation. In those early days they were both working off the farm, but George left his career servicing hospital hematology equipment in the early '90s to focus on farming. The skills he developed off the farm repairing machinery and electronics proved to be valuable as they expanded the farm, Michelle notes. "That skill set allowed us to buy older equipment and get by."
Gradually, the couple bought additional land in Madison and Pickaway counties to expand their farm. They also renovated a barn on the home farm to start their fall farm market. Their daughters, Christin and Megan, and son, Jon, all helped out with the farm and market as they were growing up, and Jon has now joined his parents farming full-time. Michelle is also on the farm full-time now after retiring from the USDA three years ago. Jon’s wife, Annie, who works as a veterinarian, helps out on the farm as well. She and Michelle manage the farm market and social media marketing while George and Jon concentrate on production.
On their home farm, the Lohstrohs have four 12-acre plots set up in a four-year rotation with strip-tilled corn, then no-till soybeans, followed with a rye cover crop, pumpkins and then sorghum-sudan grass. Having pumpkins in the rotation requires some extra planning since herbicide residuals from the previous crop can affect the pumpkins, Jon says. Growing corn the year after pumpkins or vice versa is also a problem, George adds. "You’ll grow rootless corn," he explains.
The beetles that carry bacterial wilt to pumpkins will also destroy corn roots when the insects are in their larval stage, so other crops need to be grown between corn and pumpkins to break the pest cycle. Soybeans work well the year before pumpkins because they can be harvested in time to plant a rye cover crop. Sorghum-sudan grass is helpful in the rotation because repeatedly cutting the crop helps knock back some persistent weed species.
When they first began planting a rye cover crop before the pumpkins, they were looking for a way to control mud in the field, George recalls. Bus drivers who brought school groups to pick pumpkins complained that students were getting back on the buses with their shoes covered in mud. As it turns out, the rye cover crop also helps control diseases in the pumpkins, assists with weed control and keeps the pumpkins themselves cleaner. The cover crop also protects the soil from erosion and adds organic matter, George explains. "The fringe benefits turned out to be the real benefits."
Recently, the Lohstrohs have been seeing more frequent flooding at their home farm, and they’ve been impressed by the effectiveness of crop residues and cover crops in preventing erosion. During one of the floods, a three-foot stand of sorghum-sudan grass was completely flattened, but the soil was held in place, Michelle says. "Covers really saved our fields."
In addition to their field crops, the Lohstrohs have a 35-cow beef herd. The cattle are important in the production system because they allow the Lohstrohs to include sorghum-sudan grass and hay in their crop rotations. They also feed on the leftover pumpkins at the end of the season.
The Lohstrohs use integrated pest management to help protect pollinators, and they’ve been working with Ohio State researchers on a multi-state pollinator research study. That research has shown they have a high population of squash bees in their no-till pumpkin production system. The squash bees are a native species, and they are much more effective than honey bees for pollinating pumpkins, George explains. They often spend the night inside a pumpkin flower. Since they nest in the ground, they do better with no-till production.
Testing out production practices on their home farm has helped the Lohstrohs develop the systems they use on the rest of their land. Most of their crop ground is planted to corn and soybean production, using strip tillage and cover crops. They began using GPS guidance on their equipment about 6 years ago, and now they use controlled traffic to limit compaction to the travel lanes. Those travel lanes also help during harvest by providing support for the combine, Jon points out. Another benefit of using the guidance system for all their field work is a reduction in stress, George says. "The fatigue factor went way down."
Once they had the GPS system in place, they were able to use it to pin down yield limiting factors, particularly drainage problems. Yield maps showed that yields were reduced beyond the wet spots they could see in the fields. They found there were circles around those wet spots that also had serious crop losses even though they had no trouble getting in to plant or harvest those areas. It became obvious they needed to systematically replace the old, failing clay tile to improve the productivity of the land. "We cannot no-till or cover crop our way out of that," George says.
George and Jon have a drainage design program and installation equipment, so they can install their own subsurface drainage. Afterwards, it takes a few years of tillage to get fields smoothed out and returned to no-till production, George explains. "We have to go backward to go forward, and it’s bothering us a little bit," he says.
However, in the long run, improved drainage helps improve growth of crops and cover crops, which helps increase soil organic matter, increase earthworm activity and increase the soil’s water holding capacity, he explains. "All that works together."
More on Lohstroh Family Farms
• The family. George and Michelle Lohstroh began their farm near Mt. Sterling in 1989. Their son, Jon, and daughter-in-law, Annie, now also work with them on the farm. Jon and Annie have a one-year old daughter, Julie. George and Michelle’s daughters, Christin and Megan, also helped with the farm growing up and continue to do so on return trips home. Christin now lives in Woodbridge, Va., with her husband, Abram Crutchfield, and she works developing science test questions for school proficiency tests. She and Abram are the parents of Wyatt, age 8 and Ian, age 5. Megan and her husband, Ben Murphy, now live in New London, Ohio and she works as the food safety manager for the Chef’s Garden.
• The farm. The Lohstrohs farm about 1,000 acres in Madison and Pickaway counties. They raise corn and soybeans as well as pumpkins, wheat, hay, cover crops and sorghum-sudan grass for baled silage. The farm also includes a 35-cow beef herd and a fall farm market that offers pick-your own pumpkins, hay rides, a corn maze and educational tours for school groups.
• Nomination. The Lohstrohs were nominated by Julia Cumming, program administrator, Madison Soil and Water Conservation District.
• Leadership. George has served on the Farm Bureau boards in both Madison and Hamilton Counties and was elected president in each. Michelle has served as president and in other offices for the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Society. The couple served for 13 years as 4-H advisors, and George was on the Madison County Fair Sale Committee for 14 years. George is currently vice president of the Madison Health Hospital Board of Trustees. Both George and Michelle are active in the First United Methodist Church in Mt. Sterling, and Michelle currently leads audio/visual work during services.
• Community outreach. Through their fall farm market the Lohstrohs focus on agricultural education, talking with visitors on wagon tours about sustainability, food production and pollinator habitat. They also share information about agriculture on social media and the farm has hosted meetings, field days and tours for Farm Bureau, Ohio State Extension, the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, 4-H, and their local Soil and Water Conservation District.